Great Falls Tribune: Tester behind measure for open records

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont, has introduced a bill requiring the Obama administration to put more of its records online and give people easier access to public documents that often don’t see the light of day.

It’s the latest plank of a good-government agenda Tester has pushed lately, including legislation that would make corporate campaign donations more transparent and bar former members of Congress from ever being a lobbyist once they leave office.

The Public Online Information Act introduced Thursday would force the executive branch to post all public documents and records in a free, searchable online clearinghouse. The bill also would create an independent advisory committee to issue guidelines for making public information accessible online.

“It’s groundbreaking. It’ll blaze a trail, a new path toward transparency and accountability (while) continuing to clean up Washington, D.C.,” Tester told reporters Thursday. “There are some bureaucrats in Washington who think they’re being transparent when they load up millions of pages of paper in a box and ship them off to a warehouse somewhere.”

Tester’s bill has the backing of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that pushes for government openness.

“Senator Tester has put down an important transparency marker,” said Ellen Miller, the foundation’s executive director. “In today’s world, for information to be truly public, it must be made available online.”

White House spokesman Adam Abrams said the Obama administration has “set out from day one to create an unprecedented level of openness in government,” including requiring faster access to documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act and the posting of government records online that weren’t previously available, such as logs showing White House visitors by name.

Tester’s bill applies mainly to the executive branch because it produces the vast majority of government documents, he said. It would not change procedures in the Senate, which is exempt from Freedom of Information Act laws.

Lawmakers also can anonymously block administration and judicial nominations from being put to a vote. The Senate has resisted making some disclosure information, including campaign finance reports, more easily accessible.

Tester opposes the secret holds, which allow any senator to anonymously prevent a vote on a nominee.

The farmer from Big Sandy has tried to make ethics and accountability a linchpin of his nearly 3 1/2 years in Congress. He posts his public schedule online, prohibits himself and his staff from accepting gifts or meals from lobbyists, and has barred former staff members from being able to lobby his office.

The proposed measure barring former members of Congress from lobbying on Capitol Hill permanently — House members currently have to wait one year, and senators have to wait two — is considered a long shot given that the people voting on it would be cutting off their own income opportunities.

A study by the Center for Responsive Politics recently found that 148 one-time members of Congress lobbied in 2009, though the bill would not apply to members of previous congresses.

A spokesman for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he is open to the idea of a permanent ban.

“Max has always said there is too much money and influence in politics,” Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf said. “Max is looking at this legislation very closely … though on first read, he does agree that once members of Congress leave office, they shouldn’t register as lobbyists.”

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